Over the years, I’ve described hundreds of restaurant interiors, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never used the phrase “urban-rustic post-modern barn with a farmhouse kitchen, slick contemporary interior, down-home sensibility and front yard dining.” Then again, I haven’t seen anything quite like this. The industrial-meets-agricultural building is bright and open, with homey touches like wire shelves stacked with crates of fresh produce and a massive workstation where kitchen bees craft pasta and slice salumi and bread. Clever touches abound, from the old-fashioned tin washtub sink in the unisex bathroom to the indoor/outdoor bar hung with glass lamps that resemble the flasks Tuscans use for cooking fagiole (beans). The charming dining space out front is shaded by trees, scattered with colorful furniture and centered with a tiled fireplace. The only thing missing from the picture is a mural to soften the ugly gray block wall next door. Valet parking, especially at lunch, feels way too chichi for such an earthy establishment.
Earthy is the perfect word to describe the food. Don’t expect conventional Italian-American meals, heavy with cheese, drenched with red sauce and heaped on huge plates. This is high-quality fare prepared with care and flair. Several snacky options work well as light meals paired with wine or clever craft cocktails that skew sweet. The salumi and cheese selection is top-notch, with a choice of four in each category ($4-$8). Or share the chef’s board ($15), which includes lashings of two thin-sliced meats, two cheeses, tangy house-made mustard, crusty bread, buttery Castelvetrano olives and spiced nuts.
Enticing antipasti provide culinary foreplay that may make you want to forego the entrées. Grilled cauliflower tossed with raisins in a sprightly lemon dressing topped with shaved parmigiano ($7) is spring fresh. The paper-thin fried zucchini crisps ($5) are a deliciously efficient way to get as much brightly flavored aioli in your mouth as possible. Pork belly ($12), well-browned outside, meltingly rich within and served on a bed of lentils, is Italian soul food. And calling the seriously crunchy, herb- and cheese-flecked tubers merely “crispy potatoes” ($6) does them a huge disservice.
Arancini ($9) – fried, cheese-stuffed rice balls served with a chunky marinara dip – satisfy on every level. But the best starter of all is the simplest: a big chunk of charred peasant bread lavished with perhaps the silkiest, most voluptuous burrata (cream-filled fresh mozzarella) ever. It’s gilded with just a bit of olive oil and paired with a sweet-spunky mix of shaved apple, candied walnut and arugula ($14). I can only hope no one noticed the moans of pleasure emanating from our table.
Salads are given the same level of attention. The minimally monikered “Italian” ($12) is pretty as a picture: Presented on a wooden bread board, it’s built on a base of thin-sliced salami heaped with vibrant-hued greens, roasted peppers, tomatoes, radicchio, olives and provolone in an intriguing sweet-sour dressing. Even the house salad ($8) is above par, with crisp croutons sopping up bold lemon-anchovy dressing.
I had one good pizza with house-made sausage (moist and redolent of fennel, $15) and one great one with well-browned potatoes, unsmoked bacon, roasted garlic and a perfectly fried egg on top ($14). The difference was the crust, thickish and gummy-soft in the first case and ideally thin and crackle-crusted in the second.
From tender gnocchi and braised short rib in a dazzling horseradish cream sauce ($18) to surprisingly delicate pork-stuffed raviolini packets sparked with arugula and slivers of lemon rind ($16), the pastas are simply killer. No complaints on either a chicken Kiev-like entrée stuffed with smoky scamorza cheese, neatly bundled in prosciutto and served in a pool of intense poultry reduction ($17) or richly-beefy hanger steak ($20) done perfectly to order.
It’s not easy, but it pays to save room for desserts (all $6). The budino is a much-improved version of the pudding served at Fox’s Arrogant Butcher. Its buttery, burnt sugar tang is cut with just enough salt to make it a very adult delight. The gooey, brownie-like Nutella cake layered with vanilla gelato also gets a grown-up treatment with seriously coffee-infused cream. Sticky toffee cake is beyond moist and nicely matched with poached pear. I love the bombolini – mini-doughnuts like my Nonni used to make – but though the accompanying vanilla mascarpone works, lemon curd feels like a flavor mismatch.
Except for the presence of a few sandwiches and absence of the entrées, the lunch menu differs little from dinner. While I appreciate a tight, easy-to-navigate listing, a little more variety would be welcome – throw in a few specials each day so regulars don’t get bored. On the other hand, maybe I’ll just have that burrata on peasant bread again.
North Fattoria Italiana
Address: 4925 N. 40th St., Phoenix
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Highlights: Chef’s board ($15), arancini ($9), grilled calamari ($12), pork belly ($12), romanesco cauliflower ($7), zucca chips ($5), casa salad, ($8), Italian salad ($12), pizzas ($10-$15), gnocchi ($18), raviolini ($16), chicken & prosciutto ($17), hangar steak ($20), budino ($6), bombolini ($6), sticky toffee cake ($6), affogato ($6)
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